2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
Armed and Unarmed Parties
Armed and Unarmed Parties
The first thing was to separate those with rifles from those without them, making for each unit an armed party and an unarmed party. The armed party of the 4th Field provided a detachment under Captains Kissel2 and S. T. Nolan on 28 April to guard 7 British General Hospital, just west of Canea, against attack from the sea or air and the surveyors did likewise. The unarmed parties ended up back at Perivolia transit camp, with the exception of some 200 men of the 5th Field who marched farther west to act as carrying parties for 5 Brigade at Maleme. Gradually the armed parties linked up with similar bodies of sappers, NZASC men, and others, to form composite units of makeshift ‘infantry’.
Brigadier Miles had taken command of all New Zealand troops on Crete on 28 April and relinquished it on the 30th, when he flew back to Egypt to command the New Zealand troops there. Freyberg commanded the whole island and its defences, forming for the purpose Creforce Headquarters, and on the 30th Major Queree became Freyberg's GSO II. This left Major Oakes of the 7th Anti-Tank as the senior artillery officer of the New Zealand Division in Crete and the composite force was therefore called Oakes Force.
What Oakes Force and the unarmed gunners were to do was a matter of much conjecture, and the continual marching backwards and forwards between Perivolia and Maleme of various gunner detachments in the next week did nothing to clarify the matter. Road transport was extremely scarce, which made it hard for the headquarters staffs (most of them temporary and inexperienced) to acquire the clothes, blankets, ground-sheets, mess-tins and other stores urgently needed. No picks and shovels could be got, which made it impossible to construct defence works or even dig the trenches badly needed for elementary camp hygiene. Unarmed gunners were mostly free to explore the countryside and they soon discovered the hamlet of Stalos, south-west of Ay Marina, wandering along its single street, in and out of the two earth-floored wineshops, the cobbler's workshop, and the smithy, and collecting to hear the BBC news from the one and only wireless set. Crude Greek propaganda posters were stuck on the walls, sadly out of date. There was almost nothing to buy.page 106
There were cottages at intervals along the coast road, here and there a large villa, occasionally a church or chapel, and everywhere trees. Travel-worn New Zealanders or spick and span Regulars of the Welch Regiment gathered at every cluster of buildings and cooled themselves in the shade. Beyond the road the thin strip of beach along the Bay of Canea attracted hundreds of men who bathed naked and unashamed. Across the water they could see the dark rock of Theodhoroi Island and in the distance many shimmering isles.
Most gunners assumed that Crete was for them only a staging area on the way to Egypt and they took little note of talk of an invasion from the sea or air. Miles knew better. He had attended a conference with Freyberg before he left on the 30th and learned that the New Zealanders who had landed on Crete were to stay there and fight. Like Freyberg, he did not welcome the prospect. More than half the New Zealanders were unarmed: gunners without guns, drivers without trucks, engineers and medical men without their specialist equipment, and a great many small detachments of various kinds, unfit for service as infantry and unable to do any other useful work.
The island itself seemed to favour the enemy. Its meagre supplies of military stores could only be built up through the two main ports on the north side, vulnerable to air attack. The airfields at Heraklion and Maleme and the landing strip at Retimo were similarly open to attack. These and the port of Suda above all had to be defended: the mountainous core of the island, gnarled like the trunks of its countless aged olive trees, could be ignored. But only one road linked all four areas of defence, the coast road, narrow and winding, unable to bear much traffic and also exposed to attack from the air.
The New Zealand sector became the western one, from Canea to Maleme and southwards through what became known as the Prison Valley to the lake reservoir of Aghya and the village of Alikianou—a pretty triangle of hill-country speckled with vineyards and olive groves, commanded coldly and distantly by the lofty White Mountains.
Brigadier Puttick, commanding the New Zealand Division, forecast—accurately, as it happened—that the enemy would land from the air at Maleme and in the Prison Valley. To guard the former he chose 5 Brigade, deploying it along the coast from the village of Platanias to the Tavronitis River just west of the airfield. The remainder of the New Zealand troops, 4 Brigade and the various makeshift units of infantry, were page 107 to guard the Valley, the village of Galatas, and an arc of hills stretching north-westwards to the sea near Ay Marina.
The New Zealanders at first had no guns; but an independent command, the Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisation (MNBDO) of the Royal Marines, under Major-General C. E. Weston, had already deployed an assortment of artillery, mainly at Maleme. Two 4-inch coast guns were on the hillside immediately south of the airfield, together with two 3-inch heavy antiaircraft guns, and a handful of Bofors guns encircled the landing strip. None of these were under New Zealand command, a serious error of the defence, which made it impossible to co-ordinate the defence of this all-important airfield. Further confusion resulted from the presence of Fleet Air Arm and RAF ground staffs and the specialists operating a secret radar installation known as the Air Ministry Experimental Station (AMES).
Major Oakes, who had already displayed boundless energy in the retreat from Olympus, took the reins firmly. He had won an MC on the Italian front in the First World War and had later served in the Indian Army. His command appears to have dated from the 29th, and he immediately called meetings of artillery and NZASC officers at his headquarters at the Galatas turn-off (as it was called) on the coast road. By 2 May Oakes Force took over a defensive position from the coast, a mile west of the General Hospital, curving south-eastwards to Galatas. At the same time gunners undertook coastwatching tasks.
The force grew quickly almost to the strength of a brigade, with 1 Battalion under Major Philp, 2 Battalion under Major Lewis, and 3 Battalion under Major Sprosen. It so happened that the artillery officers in the force were senior to the NZASC officers. The 1st Battalion included 4 Reserve Mechanical Transport Company (4 RMT), a detachment of the 7th Anti-Tank, and the survey troop, 60 men of the 6th Field and a party of the 5th Field. Company commanders were Captains Snadden,3 Lambourn and Veitch4 (NZASC). Snadden patrolled over two miles of beach and the other two guarded hill features. Though 4 RMT was the largest contingent in 1 Battalion, it had few officers, and several artillery officers, among them Lieutenants page 108 Clark and Nathan5 and Second-Lieutenants Carson and Radford,6 were therefore seconded to command its ‘platoons’. The 2nd Battalion was made up almost entirely of the 4th Field and its two companies, each of 80–100 men, were commanded by Captains Kissel and Nolan. Its line ran from the left of 1 Battalion south-westwards across Red Hill to Ruin Hill (names attached by men on the spot). The 3rd Battalion was at first mainly of the 5th Field (180 men) and the Divisional Ammunition Company (200–250 men), with Captains Cowie,7 Wiles8 and Moon9 (NZASC) as company commanders, and its line linked 2 Battalion with Galatas.
The current estimate was that the enemy might invade Crete 10 days or a fortnight later and Oakes decided that his men could best prepare for this by an initial course of infantry training. For a day or two, therefore, they practised using the few available weapons and studied infantry defence and patrolling. The shortage of telephone equipment prompted emphasis on semaphore training. So far as defensive positions were concerned, the troops had to make do with the wide and obvious trenches already dug in the area by the Welch Regiment, together with shallow positions scooped out with tins and other improvised tools.
After a day or two an Intelligence summary arrived which gave details of the German parachute landings in the Peloponnese and Oakes and Cowie studied this intently. It seemed to both of them that the best way to deal with parachutists was to get among them as they landed, before they could become organised. Each company therefore formed a platoon and trained it for this task, intending to leave the remaining platoons to hold the line. As part of this training, patrols thoroughly explored the tracks in the neighbourhood and became familiar with the olive groves, vineyards and areas of thickets formed by flax-like agaves in the Prison Valley.
Oakes's assessment proved to be correct; but his ideas were unfortunately not put into practice when the time came, for page 109 three reasons. The first was that many of the gunners and NZASC men, including Oakes himself, were withdrawn before the invasion and sent back to Egypt. The second was that Creforce Headquarters laid it down that troops were to do no more than try to hold their ground (because paratroops landing after the first wave might occupy vacated infantry positions). The third was lack of confidence on the part of senior infantry commanders in the area in the ability of the ‘infantillery’ to carry out operations of the kind Oakes envisaged. Senior artillery officers, including Major Bull, maintained then and later that in this the infantry commanders were mistaken and the details of the fighting lend their views much support.
A tentative order of priority for evacuation to Egypt had been drawn up and on 7 or 8 May all members of Artillery Headquarters, the 6th Field and 7th Anti-Tank, and the survey troop withdrew to the Perivolia transit camp. On the 9th they embarked on the Rodi, a bomb-damaged Italian ship, and the Bylray and sailed in a large and painfully slow convoy, in an evening luckily clouded with mist which kept the Luftwaffe away. The salvaged instruments and other equipment guarded by the survey troop, including 18 wireless sets, were taken aboard. Air attack next day seemed certain, but none came and the convoy safely reached Alexandria on the 11th. Thus 25 members of Artillery Headquarters, 201 of the 4th Field, 76 of the 6th Field, 92 of the 7th Anti-Tank and 39 of the survey troop returned to Egypt. Gunners left on Crete included the armed parties of the 4th and 5th Field and some 200 unarmed men of the latter, as well as small detachments from other artillery units.